1. Remove the corn husk from a pineapple tamal, layer by layer, as if unraveling a complex bandage.

(The whole spongy mass flops off the plate and onto the table, despite delicate pinching and tugging.)

2. Prune a flowering crown of thorns I’ve revived from the dead.

(When I try to reach a shriveled leaf at the center of the plant’s arid tangle, the tip of a thorn dips into the lilac puddle on my fingernail. It leaves a miniscule dimple, indistinguishable from the air bubbles, becoming a part of their constellation.)

3. Slide my tights down to my knees so I can pee sitting down.

(At some point I realized I had nothing to prove by standing to pee. Keeping up appearances exhausts every muscle in the body. Why not rest the legs, where no one could see me?

My older sister kept a bubblegum pink polish in the medicine cabinet. The first time I painted one of my nails, all I could manage was one shaky brushstroke on my left middle finger, which I quickly wiped off before it could dry, harden, become a part of me.

After finally tugging my tights back over the humps of my hip bones, I curse when I see that, during this painstaking process, the paint on my thumbnail has smudged. I rush back to the kitchen table where I go over the pocked polish with another layer. Only a tiny groove remains where the nail grazed spandex or skin.)

4. Wash the dishes I neglected during the week.

(Yesterday was my last day of work at a K-8 school, where I never felt I could wear colored polish. Every so often, I wore a layer of clear topcoat, hoping no one would notice the subtle glint. It was a small comfort, with diminishing returns, like closing your eyes in the dark. I always removed the paint before it began to crumple at my cuticles and flake away. At the moment of its decomposition, I worried it would suddenly become detectable.  

Only once did a child comment on the clear polish. A first-grader asked me, “Why are your nails so shiny?”

I was ready with my reply: “Because I eat my vegetables!”

“I don’t think so,” she said flatly.)

5. Pick up the phone to answer a call from my dad, who wants to see his son before leaving on a two-month-long trip.

(He wants to have lunch with me tomorrow. We had lunch a couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday. Before I drove to meet him for pasta, I removed the scarlet polish I’d applied that Friday after work. The rich pigment stained wet tissue that stunk of acetone, the red becoming indistinct, disorderly, like blood escaped from the body, no longer serving its purpose.

Twenty years earlier, my sister bribed me with one-hundred pennies and a fistful of sea glass to let her slip me into a white dress, paint my lips red, and tuck a flower behind my ear. (I was five, and probably would have done it for free, but the bribe provided convenient pretext.) She stopped short of painting my nails because this was only supposed to be a quick gag, easy to undo.

I removed the polish not because my dad would have renounced me or said anything cruel, but because I still remember the muddle of anger and disappointment on his face when he came home from work that night to see his son twirling in a gown—a face that said, I don’t think so.)

6. Open the child-safe bottle and place a blue Truvada tablet into each of the pill organizer’s seven cells.

(In line at the pharmacy, the old man leaning on a cane in front of me complimented my red nails. “I wish I had the nerve,” he said. He looked down at his hands folded over the cane’s handle. I gave him the kind of empty encouragement you give someone when you don’t actually know their life: I told him he should go for it, that I actually got my nail polish at this drugstore. I asked what color he would choose. “Blue. Just blue,” he said. Then, after a long pause: “Don’t get old—there’s no future in it.”

Will Howard lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches creative writing to kids and serves coffee to celebrities. You can reach him at wphoward333@gmail.com

Photo by Christina Brobby